Recent Commonplace Entries


On Translation

“Translation and spying are natural bedfellows: both involve double allegiances, parallel modes of expression, the ability to observe and interpret; to jump, like a seasoned performer, from one role to another . . . .  A translator is a double agent, constantly playing two texts, two cultures, two readerships off each other in order to arrive at a truth that ultimately serves no master but his own exacting level of excellence.” (Mark Polizzotti, in Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translation Manifesto, quoted by Frank Wynne in his Spectator review, August 25)                                                                                                                                               “I made the argument that translating plays requires a different skill from translating prose, and that the former was enhanced by a thorough knowledge of playwriting and theater.” (Richard Nelson, in NYT, September 11)

“Run, my friend — do not walk, for time is short and the world is about to be buried in bran flakes.” (Martin Shubik, economist and game theory pioneer, from his NYT obituary, September 1)

“That’s true, we do sometimes kill, but not people, not even something resembling a human being. Fascist degenerates. You have a few wet jobs on your own record, and a lot of people say you should be shot! Have we shot you?” (Gulag guard, from Ivan Christyakov’s The Day Will Pass Away, p 202)

“Matthew Dean, the head of Salisbury’s City Council and owner of a local pub, the Duke of York, said he hoped it would put to rest conspiracy theories circulating about the crime.” (from report of surveillance camera evidence of GRU agents, in NYT, September 6)

“Ignorance and foolishness don’t oppress in the same way that knowledge and wisdom do, precisely because they are incompetent.” (David Runciman, in How Democracy Ends, quoted by Colin Kidd in London Review of Books, September 13)

“When considering, after the war, a complaint that the records kept by F Section were somewhat incomplete, he [Buckmaster] commented that those who finished work at any time between three and five in the morning felt ‘little desire to tabulate the events of the day in order to earn the gratitude of some hypothetical historian of the future’.” (from Patrick Howarth’s Undercover, p 136)

“SOE’s policy, which of course failed, was based on the belief that only the Army could provide effective opposition to Hitler. This may have been true, but in retrospect it is difficult to decide which was the more astonishing, the number of German generals who were privy to the plans to overthrow Hitler and approved of them, or the incompetence with which the conspirators tried to translate their plans into action.” (from Patrick Howarth’s Undercover, p 232)

“Some day, when the full history is written – sober history with ample documents – the poor romancer will give up business and fall to reading Miss Austen in a hermitage.” (John Buchan, in Greenmantle, quoted by M. R. D. Foot in SOE in France, p 143)

Dubito, ergo sum – I doubt, therefore I survive – must be the motto of every successful secret agent.” (from M. R. D. Foot’s SOE in France, p 311)

“You will remember that we are purging all our secret establishment of Communists because we know they owe no allegiance to us or to our cause and will always betray secrets to the Soviet, even while we are working together. The fact of the two Communists being on the French Committee requires extremely careful treatment of the question of imparting secret information to them.” (Winston Churchill, in Second World War, v, 620, quoted by M. R. D. Foot in SOE in France, p 360)

“SOE’s direct part in the liberation of Paris was slight; though not as negligible as a few writers have supposed, who take the old-fashioned view disproved in 1870-71 that the fate of Paris decides the fate of France, and suggest that the struggle for national liberation and the struggle for control of the past and future capital can be more or less equated.” (From M. R. D. Foot’s SOE in France, pp 413-414)

“The title of a Foreign Office file this autumn – stating a fact, of course, not a policy – should not be lost to history: ‘No job for Freddie Ayer’.” (from M. R. D. Foot’s SOE in France, p 420, Note 1)

“In other cases authors, even when they had themselves taken part in what went on, have not always found it possible to keep to the unvarnished truth. A sort of declension can be observed: from minor inaccuracies due to misinformation, or brought in to heighten the tone; through material foisted on authors by unscrupulous ex-agents of both sides protecting or inflating their own reputations; major imaginative revisions superimposed on the facts; and material printed in direct contradiction of statements made by those in a position to know; down to pieces of downright fiction elaborately disguised as fact.” (from M. R. D. Foot’s SOE in France, p 453)

“When John Cornford, the poet and Communist agitator who was killed in Spain, came to my rooms in Cambridge on 17 May 1936 and tried to persuade me to Communism, I gave only one reason for refusal: ‘John, I am not a murderer, and do not wish to become one.’” (from letter by Anthony Dickins in Times Literary Supplement, April 17, 1980)

“Though relatively thin on fresh insights, British Journey makes a valuable contribution in its own way, by piecing together a mosaic of the socio-economic grievances that have festered in British society over the past few decades: the spiritual vacuum left by dwindling religiosity; pressure on under-resourced public services; isolation and insecurity in an increasingly precarious and casual labour market; the decline of vocational training and the failure of the job market to absorb university graduates.” (Houman Barekat, in review of Joe Hayman’s British Journey, in Times Literary Supplement, September 7)

“At all costs try to avoid granting yourself the status of the victim  . . . .  No matter how abominable your condition may be, try not to blame anything or anybody: history, the state, superiors, race, parents, the phase of the moon, childhood, toilet training  . . . .  The moment that you place blame somewhere, you undermine your resolve to change anything.” (Joseph Brodksy, in commencement address at the University of Michigan in 1988, quoted in the Times Literary Supplement, September 7)

“Their name is used now as a term of abuse, as if Neanderthals were the epitome of uncouthness – shambling morons whose knuckles scraped the ground. In fact, ‘they showed clear signals of modern behavior: they made jewellery, employed complex hunting techniques, used tools, had control of fire and made abstract art’.” (Patrick Skene Catling, in review of The Book of Humans: The Story of How We Became Us, in Spectator, September 22)

“The intense feeling, ecstatic or terrible, without an object or exceeding its object, is something which every person of sensibility has known; it is doubtless a subject of study for pathologists. It often occurs in adolescence: the ordinary person puts these feelings to sleep, or trims down his feelings to fit the business world; the artist keeps it alive by his ability to intensify the world to his emotions.” (from T. S. Eliot’s essay on Hamlet, quoted by Craig Raine in an article about Harold Pinter, Spectator, September 22)



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